Walking The Big Black Dog

I haven’t written any new posts for a while for a few reasons. The first being that I was
spending time with family during the holidays, and not really doing any blog-worthy,
“touristy” things. Which was just fine.
The second reason was that for most of the time since my last post I was wrapped in a
funk that was tough to shake off. I couldn’t really see the point of writing, or of anything
in general. The things I usually enjoyed held little interest, nor did I have the energy to
take part in them. I walked around feeling like I was wearing one of those lead aprons
you wear during X-rays. Most of the time I spent wanting to stay in bed, curled up in a
ball. While I don’t drink, I could see the appeal. Everything was just…meh.
After I left Tisarana Monastery in Canada, I had a lot of time on my hands to ruminate
over a recent loss and betrayal of friendship. Instead of continuing the work with
feelings that came up, I used the spare time to distract myself: watching movies,
surfing the net, reading, eating tons of holiday sweets, and just hanging out.
I was walking “The big black dog” (as Winston Churchill called it) of depression. I hid it
from my family (although no longer, as they follow this blog) because who wants to be
a downer during the holidays? But there it is.
I also struggled with sharing it with others because there’s this held perception that as
a Buddhist, if someone is “doing well” in their practice, then they won’t have any
depressed thoughts. Like we’re all supposed to be shiny, happy people, 24-7.
It was good to spend time with family and friends though, and it kept me going. Having
people around you who love and support you goes a long way.
I also had the chance to talk with a few Buddhist friends and discovered that they too,
on occasion, had dealt with the same issues – even friends who have practiced for
years. Discovering the shared difficulty and shattering the perception of a “perfect
practitioner” was immensely helpful. I wasn’t alone after all, despite what the mind was
telling me.
At the end of the year, I returned to Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery to help with the
winter retreat. I’m now on the retreat schedule of increased meditation, and have been
tweaking my practice by including more body awareness, and refraining from investing
in the stories that depression tells the mind (at least sometimes). It does help. I’m
finding that Buddhist practice isn’t a guarantee against depression, but it gives me
great tools to work with it. I’ve also been walking more, doing more yoga practices,
taking vitamin B12, using a SAD light, and ruminating less (mostly).
Also key has been remembering that this is not “me”. It’s a “tropical depression” in the
sky of who “I” am, of time and space. It won’t last forever, and is passing through at its
own speed.

All of the things above have helped, and while I wouldn’t say I’m back to being a
“shiny, happy person” (if that truly exists), the forecast now is fair to partly sunny. I find
myself laughing a bit more often, and am at least more peaceful. I’ll take it for now.
My next post will be about the monastery where I’m staying, and what I’m currently
doing. But for now, I wanted to share what had been going on. I almost didn’t make
this post, but I decided that there’s strength in sorrow shared. If there’s someone out
there that can benefit from knowing that they’re not alone, then it’s worth having
people know I’m not perfect.
Ok, you probably knew that already, but it’s tough to drop the ideal sometimes. Thanks
for bearing with me.
Be well and…peaceful.

Advertisements

Sabbehi me piyehi manāpehi, part two

I’ve returned to Tisarana Buddhist Monastery, located in rural Ontario, Canada. It has been somewhat of a refuge here. While I’ve been interacting with the monastics and guests here to some degree, I’ve had a lot of time on my own. I’m staying in a kuti (a small cabin), and it’s been wonderful to have a bit of privacy and seclusion again. I’m finding I’m enjoying my own company more than I have in the past.

The scenery here has been gorgeous. Changing leaves, fall colors, and amazing sunsets on the nearby lake. I’ve had time to do some walking and kayaking as well as formal meditation practice. I’ve also had time to look at the changing nature of things, and to be more at peace with it. The sun sets and the moon rises, filling the sky with silvery light. The falling leaves make way for spring’s new growth. Change isn’t always a bad thing.

All the things that we find ourselves clinging to, both positive and negative, can change. And we can be better off for it. Sometimes losing what we think is ours, beloved or pleasing can make room for new growth.

So I’ll be here for another month, enjoying the changing season.



Sabbehi me piyehi manāpehi

I don’t always miss you.

Lost in dreamless sleep, I long for nothing and no one.

When I’m busy and focused,

I don’t notice that a part of me is elsewhere, miles and miles away.

When I’m aware

Of the sound of silence, my breath, or the birds in the trees

I’m not drifting, lost, a sail without wind on an endless sea.

But otherwise…

When night approaches quietly, and emptiness creeps in like something slithering,

When memories come crashing in like waves, leaving an ebb of regret,

When the rest of the day goes on,

Your face tugs at the sleeve of my mind

Over and over

Reminding me of all I’ve left behind,

And all that I could lose.

Harnham Buddhist Monastery (Or, “What I did for my summer vacation”

For the last few months I’ve been back at Harnham Monastery, nestled in the gently rolling hills of Northumberland, England. Sheep and cows graze upon green fields, and the sun plays hide and seek between the clouds (mostly hiding). The monastery is smaller in space than other monasteries, and the area around it is quiet (except for the cows and sheep).

I came here to support a friend, but I’ve been supported here in learning much about myself and Buddhist practice. While there were no great bolts of insight, I did see into a few things in a slightly clearer manner.

First was dealing with loneliness. A lot of time to myself initially left me seeking distraction to fill the time alone. Theres not much distraction available at a monastery: No music, no tv, no eating after noon. I started doing a lot of walking. While this helped some (and also helped me lose ten pounds in the process), being with the loneliness, feeling it in the body and offering compassion seemed to help the most. I’m still learning.

It wasn’t all loneliness, and interactions with others became another practice. It’s funny how even platonic relationships can throw a mirror in your face and show you where your rough edges are. Previously unnoticed aspects of yourself and habits are revealed. “Really? Have I been doing that all along?” It’s a process that never ends, I think. 

Also was the realization that there is no ideal time in the future when I’m going to “really get on with my practice”. The time is now, and the practice is happening right now, whether I “really get down to it” or not. At least that’s the feeling I have these days. To paraphrase John Lennon, practice is happening while you’re busy planning your practice.

Yes, there were other lessons as well. Some I’m still processing, some personal, and some that just don’t lend themselves to being blog topics. For as much time as I spent here, I suppose this blog entry is pretty short. Much of what goes on at monasteries doesn’t seem exciting in the standards of the world outside, but I assure you it was time well spent.

So enjoy some of the pictures below, and may your own lessons continue in a beneficial way.

Swan on Bolam Lake



Yup. It’s a hedgehog. Apparently their population is dwindling, so I’m glad I got to meet one up close.


Barley close up
Barley harvesting

Changing Weather, Changing Plans

I’ve just left Tisarana Buddhist Monastery in Perth, Ontario, after finishing the winter retreat period plus another month.

When I arrived, it was a typical Canadian winter. Slowly I watched the icy and snow capped landscape gradually thaw and transform into spring. By the time I left, the lakes had thawed, the trees were budding, and the grass was an electric green.

Which recycling category do raccoons fit in?


Brrrr!

Inukshuk


The retreat itself went well. Perhaps not in a way of deep concentration, but insights nonetheless. When you spend day after day with a handful of people on a regular basis, the experience becomes a giant mirror on your interpersonal habits. How do you respond in a skillful way (hopefully) when someone pushes your buttons? And you also find how you push other people’s buttons as well. How does each situation feel? Where is the suffering? When all our usual distractions are removed, habits become more obvious. 

For example, while I love alone time, if I’m around other people, there’s a tendency for me to talk. Sometimes a lot. I was able to look at this and see where it came from, and when it causes difficulty. Am I now quiet and reserved? Hardly. But there is at least a new awareness around it. And also an awareness that it’s not always a bad thing in some situations, and not necessarily a problem unless I make it one. So there’s a bit of acceptance as well. I’m willing to call it progress.

Amidst all this personal work was time making new friendships and strengthening old ones. The community of monks and lay people here is quite a warm, welcoming group, and one I feel comfortable returning to.

It’s a long story, but tonight I’m headed back to England to Harnham Monastery, which I visited last year. I’ll still have limited internet, but will try to post again from there.

Be well and happy, dear readers!

Winter Retreat at Tisarana Buddhist Monastery, Ontario CA

Morning time, and all is quiet, except for the sound of my boots, crunching through the snow.Wind blows cold, making the -14C (10F) seem much colder. It seeps through my thin cotton pants, reminding me that another bottom layer would have been a good idea.

Oh well.

I choose a quiet road, where no vehicles have been since last night’s snow. The animals have been busy here however, and I see footprints of deer, rabbits, foxes and coyotes. Snow still covers the branches of the trees, unmelted as of yet by a sun that’s shining through a thick curtain of clouds.

I reach a nearby lake, still frozen to some degree, but not enough for me to comfortably test. I stop to enjoy the immensity of the frozen form, the enticing islands in the middle of it. To enjoy the quiet. The vastness.


Walking back, I hear a conversation between two old trees, creaking and moaning as they sway in the wind. 

“Oh, my joints ache” 

“Oh, me too. And my lumbago is acting up: I got no rest last night!”

“Yes, I heard you groaning all night”

I return to the monastery, where the guests stay in a beautiful old farmhouse. It’s my quiet day, on which I have no responsibilities, other than to take time to be present and enjoy the space, and spend time with the mind.

The six of us here have the pleasant task of keeping the monastery running while the monastics and long term lay residents are on retreat. It’s not an onerous job by any means, and we have plenty of quiet time as well. It’s a lovely bunch of people to be with, and a wonderful, peaceful place. 
**Just as a side note, there is very limited internet time here, so I’m not following blogs while I’m here. So if I haven’t “liked” or commented on your posts lately, it’s not personal. I’ll be back into the blogging world in May. Maybe.

Finding Balance

During my recent travels, for the most part I was removed from American politics. I could watch what was going on in both the American and local (wherever I was at the time) political arena as an outsider, which lent itself to equanimity.

I can’t say that I was that involved before I left, but I could certainly see a sense of self revolve around political events and my reaction to them: this leader was “bad”, this other was “good”. I liked some policies, others seemed misguided at best. That duality was somewhat encouraged by the crowds I was within. Not because anyone suggested doing this, but because we all shared the same opinions.

But finding myself in other countries, it was easier to remove myself from political views and opinions. Not that I didn’t have them, but their pull was not as strong. Events in the states were occurring halfway around the world, and without constant access to television, I heard less about them. Locally, not being a citizen, I had no influence over what happened, which granted a certain freedom. It’s easy to be equanimous when one isn’t directly involved (The Indian demonetization excepted).

I have to say that the equanimity was a relief. A freedom to put views and opinions at a distance and say, in the words of one of my teachers, “It’s like this”.

In the Buddha’s time, monastics were instructed to stay out of politics. The idea was that monasteries should be a place of refuge for those of any political party, and no one should feel like they wouldn’t be welcome. Also, there was a higher goal of maintaining equanimity and losing the sense of “this is mine, this is I, this is my self”.

And while I don’t fall under the requirements that monasteries do, I still would like to think that I could have positive exchanges with people of opposing views. That the practice of metta wouldn’t be limited to political party, and that all would feel welcome in my presence.

Even as a lay-person, equanimity is still a goal. So at first, when I returned, my goal was to stay out of the political world, holding on to that equanimity with all my might.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Thanks to a regular exposure to views and opinions from both sides, I found myself in a quandary. When faced with actions that can cause harm to a large group of people, is it fair to stand aside and do nothing? As a layperson, I have no precept or constraint to stay out of politics. So the question I’m facing is this: can one find a balance between standing up for what one believes to be right, yet maintain equanimity? Can one recognize and resist when harm is being done without holding to views and opinions?

I haven’t figured out the answer yet. I believe somewhere in watching the mind, and seeing what leads to suffering and what doesn’t is the key. It’s a work in progress. I suppose that’s why they call it a “practice”.